E.P.I.C. Stories & World Creation
In Part 1 of Building E.P.I.C. Worlds, I outlined three types of genres of speculative fiction with regards to the kinds of worlds the world-builder could create the science-fiction universe, the fantasy universe, and the alternate history universe. In Part 2 of this tutorial series, we will look at the particular elements of those worlds, and how choosing the structure of your story will influence each of these elements.
The structure of a story is the framework of how a story is told that is, how it will begin, how it will progress, and how it should end. I use an acronym to remember four elements of a story: E.P.I.C, which stands for Event, Place, Idea, and Character. Other elements, like dialog and point-of-view, are also important to a story, but for the purpose of world-building, I will focus on those particular four and how they relate to the creation of your universe. Sometimes, English teachers, critics, and writers and will see and use other terms for these four elements of fiction: "Conflict" instead of "Event", "Setting" instead of "Place", and "Theme" instead of "Idea", for example. Those terms may be more technically correct, but they make for a lousy acronym (in my opinion). Regardless of what you choose to call these elements, it can be helpful to use these elements to help you focus in ways that can influence your story construction, and thus your world creation.
Every story relies on events, places (and settings), ideas (or themes), and characters with their viewpoints, motivations, and dialogs. Every story is a combination of these and other elements. But the most satisfying stories are the ones that tend to focus on one of those elements as the most important when you tell the story from beginning to end. I tend to see that there are four kinds of stories that come out of this focus on the four elements.
Initially, I will discuss how each of these four kinds of story has its own unique construction and give examples. Secondly, I will touch on the four elements as they pertain to world-building. And lastly, I will extend these themes to include visual works of art and show how focusing on one of these elements can also help the visual artist as well.
E.P.I.C. Elements as Kinds of Story
I believe that there are four kinds of speculative fiction Event, Place, Idea, and Character stories. The rule to story structure is quite simple: the kind of story you begin with must be the kind of story you end with. This will make more sense as I describe each kind of story. It is a simple rule, but many writers fail to follow that rule. If you promise your reader one kind of story and fail to deliver, then that can leave the reader of your tale dissatisfied and confused in the end. As a writer, the kind of story has to be established and communicated within the first paragraph or two in a short story, or first page or two in a longer novel. Again, this will make more sense as I illustrate the different kinds below.
Event In an Event story, something is wrong in the world. Something is out of order broken. The story will end when the world is either brought back into order, or reaches a new order. In H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, for example, an alien spacecraft arrives. This is how the story starts, and Wells wastes little time with much precursor. The story ends when the Martians die the Event is over. In another example, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings story begins when Frodo discovers his uncle's ring. But it does not end with the One Ring's destruction. It ends as the new world order comes to fruition when the elves, Gandalf, and Frodo depart from Middle Earth, leaving only Aragorn's reunited Kingdom of Gondor.
Notice that characters, places, and themes are still important parts of the Event story. But they are all subservient to the main element the Event. The main drive of the characters is to either reestablish the order or come to grips with the new order. The places serve as a backdrop and are only important if they advance the goal of a return to equilibrium. The theme can be present, but is still secondary to the event. In War of the Worlds, one such theme might be the impotence of humans to the vastly superior alien technology. In Lord of the Rings, one theme may be the profound respect of power and the need to return it to the Earth rather than be tempted to use that which we cannot ever control.
Most stories in our culture tend to be Event stories. They make great movies. Even literary works that began as Idea or Place stories are often rewritten for the silver screen as Event stories. If you are new to writing, these can be good stories to write because they are so prevalent in our culture.
When I began to write, I was often so excited about the worlds I created that I would include a prologue. My thought was that the reader would be lost if suddenly thrust into these strange and wondrous worlds. But I have discovered that for an Event story, writers need to resist the temptation to write an introduction or prologue or even an explanatory paragraph regarding how their world works. This fact can be terribly heartbreaking to the world-builder! But as a writer, you must be content to show your world as a backdrop. This does not nullify the detail of the world, by any means! I maintain that if your background world is not fully thought out, the gaps will surely catch the author sooner or later. But the author will have to show this world in the backdrop of action and reveal it, often in very simple ways, as the story progresses.
Place The Place story can be the world-builder's best friend, and simultaneously the builder's worst enemy. This is because Place stories can be very difficult to write! A Place (also known as a setting or milieu) story is one in which is the central element will be all about the strange world itself. In essence, the Place becomes the primary character of the story.
Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are classic examples of the Place story. Some of my favorite modern examples are Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time by James Gurney and Expedition by Wayne Douglas Barlowe. Quite simply, it begins when the character (and the reader) enter the world, and it ends when the character goes "home".
In the examples above, Alice falls down the rabbit hole in the first paragraph. The story ends exactly as she returns to her English riverside. With Dorothy, however, the kind of story may be a little difficult to discern at first. Is it an Event story when everything is thrown into chaos with the tornado and Dorothy is swept away to Oz? This is unlikely because the actual event of the tornado is brief. The story does not end with the end of the tornado. Perhaps the story is an Event about the confrontation between Dorothy and the Wicked Witch of the West when Dorothy's house lands on her sister. One clue that it is indeed a Place story is because of how the story ends. It does not end with the death of the West Witch. It begins when Dorothy enters Munchkinland, and it ends when Dorothy uses the magical silver (not ruby) shoes to return home. In the Hollywood version, the story is bent into an Event when Dorothy comes to the conclusion that "there's no place like home" (returning the balance) but in the book series, Baum shows Oz as a place the characters love and want to explore again!
The first Dinotopia book by Gurney is likewise a Place story featuring his mind-blowing visual representations. He accompanies these works with a bit of a supporting storyline. But the main characters, Arthur and Will, do not return to the land they came from (that is why I put "home" in quotes). Here, the story ends when "home" is replaced with Dinotopia itself. The characters both accept this land, its denizens, and its customs as their new home.
Just like the Event story, characters, events, and themes still play a part in the story, but all of them are subject to the Place itself. But as I alluded to, this is a very difficult kind of story to write. If you wish to write speculative fiction, I would suggest trying a different story first, like Event or Character, until you become more comfortable with the subtleties of the Place story. The writer needs to walk a very thin tightrope between the details of the world while trying to keep the reader interested enough to continue with the story and not get too bogged down in minutia. On top of that, the Place story is perhaps the least written kind, so there is a temptation to shift into an Event, Character, or Idea story.
Much of Western culture, American culture in particular, has a short attention span, which makes the Place story very hard to write about. As an artist, one thing I keep in mind when writing a Place story is the purpose of writing it in the first place. The reason for writing a Place story is actually to use a kind of reverse psychology. As you weave your tale, and the reader becomes enthralled with the strange, new world, what is happening inside the reader is a comparison with this world. If you do it well, the reader is largely unconscious of this comparison. A good example of how to do this is in Wayne Barlowe's Expedition. Barlowe begins with a preface, but the introduction is not about the planet, Darwin IV. It is about the desolate and lifeless Earth. At the end of the book, when the explorers leave the alien world that is teaming with exciting new life, the character and reader alike are left with the dread of returning to an Earth that humans have polluted and killed. One cannot help but be left with provocative questions.
Idea The quintessential Idea story is the detective story the Whodunit. It begins when the puzzle is presented, often in the form of a dead body in a Mystery novel. If it is a very good book, it ends when you shout, "It was the butler! I knew it!!!"
Science fiction is actually a very good genre for this kind of story because the scientific process itself is one of inquiry and method in order to solve your mystery. Isaac Asimov's book, I, Robot is full of short stories based upon his Three Laws of Robotics and whether or not they have been compromised. Generally, I tend to find the fantasy and alternate history genres more difficult than science fiction for Idea stories. But what I or others find difficult may be easier for you, and that is a great niche to be in. I suppose it could be argued that some of the early Harry Potter stories could be Idea stories, for example.
In an Idea story, the event serves to trigger the idea. In a murder mystery, for example, the event of the murder may reveal the idea. It may (or may not) throw the lives of the characters out of order, but the story still ends when the mystery is solved. How the characters deal with the murder and how some sort of order is restored, if at all, is not what the reader cares about.
Character Stories that focus on the character are all about that character's transformation. This kind of story begins with how the character is in the world. It ends when that character has changed has come to learn something about herself or himself.
Some movie examples that come to mind are Groundhog Day, Big Fish, and Family Man. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray's character, Phil, begins as a dour, self-centered ego and ends after he comes to love Rita selflessly and unconditionally. In Tim Burton's adaptation of Big Fish, the story begins with Will Bloom as frustrated and mistrustful of his father, Edward. It ends when Will finally accepts his father's manner of storytelling as a type of lived truth and becomes a storyteller to his own children. Nicolas Cage has been in a few Character movies. In Family Man, a variation of It's a Wonderful Life, the character of Jack sees what his life could have been instead of what it is now. The story ends when he deliberately and wholeheartedly embarks in that life. In Next, the character of Chris begins as a small-time magician in Las Vegas who uses his precognitive powers for petty gain. The movie ends when he actually leaves his love interest and accepts the huge responsibility to use his powers to save millions of people by preventing a nuclear explosion. We don't see him stop the event. The movie ends with his transformation into a new way of being.
In the Character story, the transformation is the key element. I see a lot of stories and movies these days that throw in parental issues to their characters. But in the end, many of these are still Event stories. For example, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, we are introduced to Indy's father, Dr. Henry Jones, Sr. While the viewers may be interested and amused to know a little about the young Indiana Jones and his daddy issues, in the end of the movie, the character really doesn't change. In fact, the audience would probably be angered if Dr. Jones Jr. did change! He is still the same maverick archeologist we know and love riding into the sunset at the end of the Event movie.
In your initial draft, it can be helpful to start out choosing to write an Event, Place, Idea, or Character story, but by no means are you bound by sticking with that element from then on. You choose to focus on the element that matters most to you. If you start with a Place story, and in your revisions you think it would make a better Event story, then you have the freedom to switch. Just keep in mind that your good story will have to begin as an Event story, and end as an Event story. Peer feedback helps.
While world-building can be an end in itself, for the purpose of writing speculative fiction, much of the world you create will often be transparent to your reader. However, I hope that you can still see just how important it is to have worked out a world or universe and its rules none-the-less. Depending on what story structure the writer chooses will determine just how much time and energy will be put into the creation of the universe, and which elements of that universe will demand the most attention.
Place & Idea Worlds For both Place and Idea stories, the method of telling the story will rely most on discovery. Don't write as if your characters already know how your worlds work. It takes all of the fun out of the discovery.
Remember, the Place story demands the most attention to detail because so much of its details are in the direct spotlight. The place itself is the main character and the reader will really need to know the nuts and bolts about everything. Still, it is very difficult to build a world and then write a story about it. This kind of world is best described as the supporting characters discover how this world works differently from the one they came from.
Idea stories also demand attention to detail. But often the detail is in one or two specific parts of your universe. In my opinion, Isaac Asimov does the best example of this in his collection of stories in I, Robot (if you are interested, do not try to save time with the movie of the same name not even close). In these stories, the attention is specifically on Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which is an exercise in logic and reasoning. The settings take place on Earth, Mercury, and even between the stars, but it is the Three Laws that are central elements of the universe in those stories.
Event & Character Worlds Even though the setting is far less in the spotlight in Event and Character stories, I believe that the writer needs to pay the same careful attention to detail. You don't need to know every tiny detail, but you should have worked out enough to keep the events moving or the characters struggling to evolve. I believe that if you have a confident, logical framework for your world, that confidence comes out in your ability to tell your story.
Take Joss Whedon's television show,Firefly, for example. On the one hand, poor Joss did a lousy job by not paying attention to solar system mechanics. He basically used "terra-forming" as a magical means of making alien planets all look like Southern California. But on the other hand, he had his rules for his universe. Most were deliberate in order to tell a compelling story, but others were simply pragmatic: no aliens, no faster-than-light means of transportation, spacecraft with a means of manipulating gravity (that was pragmatism there), lots of planets, eclectic world-cultures in collision, dramatically rigid social strata, a single government power victorious over independent-minded rebels, Companions, favorite guns, and plenty of very colorful human characters. While I really wish he'd put more thought into his solar system mechanics (a headache for those of us Left Behind), he was at least smart enough to know that there is no sound in space. His main focus was on the characters and events, not the places or ideas of his 'Verse. And that makes for some of the shiniest yarn-spinnin' there is when the audience is fascinated, not distracted, by the story setting.
When you create your own worlds, you will need rules. Rules act as a framework that you and your readers can hang on to. This keeps your audience from getting distracted and confused as to how things work in your universe. It isn't simply a matter of placing all of your planets in the right orbits or composing a complete compendium of magical incantations. But it does include the cultures, religions, philosophies, and customs of the people in your world. These considerations can range from a very simple word to a complex system depending on what you think is most important in your universe. The point is to at least think about them.
If you think rules constrain creativity, think again. Rules are like the bones in your body. They may prevent you from fitting into a mailbox, but they are pretty handy for walking upright! Presenting a world in which magic is commonplace can make a seasoned fantasy reader yawn. But if you place a rule on the magic such as every time the magician casts a spell, say, he loses a year of his lifespan then things get interesting. Will the old geezer let the dragon fry the knight if in doing so, he could keel over? Rules and constraints make for good conflict. Conflict is dramatic, and drama makes good story.
In the Place story, your attention will need to be broad, detailed, and have impeccable integrity. This is the reason that Place stories can be difficult to write; you have to walk that tightrope between keeping the story entertaining and moving the story along.
In the Idea Story, the integrity of one element will be highlighted. Your universe must do everything to support that central idea.
In the Character story, the elements of your universe must have some meaning and impact to your character and the transformation that is taking place. It may only one phenomenon, like the looping-effect in Groundhog's Day, but it is what forces the character, Phil, to try again until he gets it right.
In the Event story, the world becomes important when it supports the unfolding of the event. How your universe works may be the key that the heroes of the story can exploit in order to make things right again. However, how your universe works may also work against your heroes and may have even caused the Event to happen in the first place. Everything in your universe must center on the Event. Knowing what is supposed to be in equilibrium and order and what is in broken chaos is the main focus of your world-building here.
You can see how story structure elements can influence how you build your world, how much energy to put into what elements, and how you might show your universe off to your readers. But in the end, the world-builder needs only to trust his or her process. In other words, the most important thing is to have fun! If story structure elements feel too binding, do away with them. Many times, I've begun to create a universe with one story structure in mind only to realize a different one would be better. Structure can help you focus, but I believe that in the end world creation is a natural process. If you feel compelled to explore and research a particular detail of your universe, explore it! Don't worry if those particular details never come out in the story you are writing. Hang on to those findings because they could be useful in the next story. I've written several stories in the same universe the reader doesn't even have to know it is recycled.
E.P.I.C. Visual Art
Focusing on these four story elements is not for literature alone. I think it can also work for visual artwork as well. Pictures are really just stories that hit you all at once visually. If you are creating a drawing or photograph, would it help to think about these elements? What kind of story are you telling visually? Are you getting us to notice how different your artwork is from the "normal" world? You might be showing us a Place picture. Maps are stories too, and a great example of Place fiction. Is there some action happening? Maybe there is an Event that we are meant to pick up on like an epic space battle, or the moment the hero discovers the dragon is right behind his back! Are we looking at a character at the exact regretful moment that she is thinking, "What the hell have I just done?" Perhaps that is a Character story. Even an Idea story can be displayed visually if the viewer has to piece together the puzzle before them. How the artist sees the world, and then presents that world to us is always a story. Look around Deviant Art and ask yourself, "Is this work of art an Event, Place, Idea, or Character story?" What might this artwork be using the E.P.I.C. paradigm?
As a parting puzzle, I would like to invite you to consider James Cameron's movie, Avatar. Is it an Event story, a Place story, an Idea story, or a Character story? I think it is safe to say that it is not an Idea story. We are never invited to know what makes the most horribly named element ever work. (unobtainium? That blatant contempt for creative thinking makes my skin crawl!!!) We don't start the movie asking, "Why don't the natives like us?" or "What makes the bio-system act like a giant organic computer?" But is it an Event story? If so, what is out of order, and does the movie end with the resolution of that disorder? Is it a Character story? If so, who is changing and what is that person (or people) changing into? Is it a Place story? Does the story begin when Jake and the viewers arrive on Pandora and end when the bad guys (and, sadly, us) leave Pandora? I believe there is an answer, and that there are three nested very close together in a chiasm, but this puzzle is a hard one! Avatar is also a great example of how stories are not simply about one element alone just about which one is most important to you. After all, it is your story and I can't wait to hear it.
I hope that by looking at your stories as one of four kinds Event, Place, Idea, and Character that you will have another tool in which to tell a good story and create an exciting world. I would like to thank you, reader, for allowing me to share this tutorial/essay with you. I sincerely hope that it helps you in crafting your art. I continue to believe in the power of story to change the world, the desperate need for creative thinkers, and in the shear pleasure of building a fantastic and exciting universe.